If you were binging on absinthe and someone dropped you in the alleyway of a Beijing brothel, it would probably be pretty akin to dining at Opera restaurant in Chicago’s South Loop.
Opera is the brain child of Jerry Kleiner, the restauranteur/interior designer behind Marche, Red Light, Gioco, Vivo, Carnivale, Victor Hotel, and so much more. Kleiner likes to point out that he has no formal interior design training, and as a result he ignores constraints and pursues his own inner muse. Over the years this muse has evolved into a kind of Asian Moulin Rouge design movement. Static spaces are transformed into kinetic fantasias and chromatic kaleidoscopes.
Opera continues where Marche left off with it’s bordello red crepe lanterns, metal scroll work, lush velvets, rich woods, and faux graffiti walls. There’s a backlighted wall that mimics the dance floor in Saturday Night Fever or the paintings of Piet Mondrian. The design centerpoint literally and figuratively is a wrought iron stairway that leads to a curious red door that you imagine might be the gateway to heaven, the backway into the forbidden city, or the exit for some kid who dug his way from China.
Precisely because Kleiner is known for flashy interiors, I have avoided his restaurants. It’s weak logic, but I always figured the food would be an afterthought with such an investment in interiors. Guys like Charlie Trotter, the crew at Alinea, and even Mr. Wizard himself, Homaro Cantu at Moto, have emphasized sleek modern or contemporary interiors that work in service of the food.
A friend of mine who has been eating her way through out the city raved about a meal she had at Opera a few weeks ago. Like Kleiner, I believe rules and conventions are made to be broken, and so I broke down and decided it was time to eat at a Kleiner restaurant, instead of peering in the windows and treating the restaurants like a cheap peep show.
My visit to Opera came on a the back of a recent food trip to Cleveland where I was occasionally surprised, but often disappointed by a lack of care and absence of quality at some of their finest restaurants. In fact I was downright depressed by what I expected to be a week of solid food debauchery and gourmet excess.
Nothing cures depression like comfort food, and nothing’s more comforting than a night on the couch with the finest takeout in the city. The only difference is I found myself in a private chinese banquet in one of the rooms at Opera that used to be a Paramount film vault. Chef Paul Wildermuth has truly refined what for too long has been the domain of substandard mystery meats butressed by too much MSG. He takes chinese classics like egg rolls and injects high quality ingredients like maine lobster, or substitutes fat fresh creamy hockey puck sized divers scallops, where lesser hands would use those gunky pink miniscule grocery store versions soaking in preservative. The truth of the food is in its balance and seasoning. Garnish like the ginger scallion relish for the Shanghai shrimp dumplings is sweet and spicy, and the brightness of the mango lime sauce for the lobster spring roll is complemented with acid from the accompanying tossed greens. No flavor note is overwhelming.
The mains are exceptional. When’s the last time you had truffle oil in your stir fry? The chicken and forest mushrooms dish is addictive precisely because of the subtle truffleness underlying the freshness of the scallions and spring asparagus. The beef in the Kung Pao is cooked to medium and melts in your mouth. For years I’ve accepted stringy rubbery well done cheap beef. No more.
You might even give up fortune cookies once you get a taste of pastry chef Chris Hansen’s confections. The opera cake is a satisfying amaretto infused twist on tiramisu. The manadarin orange Grand Marnier-almond cake, with tangerine sorbet, and kumquat marmalade is a repetitive deconstruction of citrus, the kind you’d expect from a chef like Grant Achatz or Charlie Trotter. Each bite amplifies the next. Soon you’re tasting tropical sun and satisfied that a bout of scurvy is years away. This dessert is truly one of the best I have had this year.
The tricky thing about Chinese food, is typically it’s a value proposition. You can go down to Chinatown and score some reasonably priced good eats at Lao Szechuan, whereas a meal at Opera can run around 80 bucks for two with a few drinks. Then again there’s no feast for the eyes courtesy of Kleiner, and you’re getting flank steak instead of New York strip. A little luxury in the form of superior gourmet versions of classic Chinese dishes is worth the splurge.
Opera is located 1301 S. Wabash. Phone is 312-461-0161.